Daniel Kudla, left, and Prof. Patrick Parnaby
Daniel Kudla, left, and Prof. Patrick Parnaby

Twitter is becoming more than a forum for posting messages in 140 characters or less. A growing number of police departments are using Twitter as a communications and public relations tool.

As an avid Twitter follower of the Toronto Police Service, Prof. Patrick Parnaby decided to analyze 15,000 tweets by or about the force over a six-week period last year with the help of PhD student Daniel Kudla. For Parnaby, policing has been a research interest for many years; he also teaches a course on the sociology of policing.

“I had always been interested in the significance of Twitter,” adds Parnaby, Department of Sociology and Anthropology. “Some people write it off as 140 characters of nonsense, and other people suggest it’s much more meaningful.”

Indeed, some people use Twitter to share the minutiae of their daily lives, while police organizations use it to help solve crimes, issue public safety announcements, find missing people and engage in community outreach.

The use of Twitter as a public relations tool by police is of particular interest to Parnaby. “They tweet a lot,” he says of the Toronto Police. “They clearly have officers trained, and only certain people are allowed to tweet, usually senior officers.”

Today’s technology allows the average citizen to become an amateur law enforcer or police watchdog. Now that almost everyone has a smartphone with a built-in camera, they can tweet photos and videos of crimes in progress or capture evidence of what they perceive to be police misconduct.

“People feel that they need to hold the police accountable, especially now with social media,” says Kudla, who considered becoming a police officer and attended a police foundations program.

The researchers used a computer-based data analysis program to look for patterns in the tweets. They found that most of the tweets about the Toronto Police were critical, including allegations of racism and police misconduct.

“When you look at it graphically,” says Parnaby, “it’s almost like different conversations going on, but you also get a quick glimpse of what’s dominating, and in Toronto’s case, unfortunately, it’s the negative.” Whether those tweets are based on fact or public perception is another matter, he adds.

The researchers found that tweets about the force covered a wide range of praise and criticism – mostly the latter. “It goes from the most vile, hate-filled tweets against the police to really thoughtful critiques about policy or officer behaviour,” says Parnaby. “What really struck both of us was the extent to which tweets about the Toronto Police were making reference to racism and outright accusations, usually tied to gun violence.”

Although some of the public’s comments were positive, “those are limited and outnumbered by the negative aspects we’re referring to,” says Kudla. Some of the tweets were humorous, such as the one from a concerned citizen who tweeted about a neighbour’s cat stuck in a tree.

The police also scan Twitter pages and Facebook profiles for clues to help solve crimes. In some cases, criminals are brazen – or foolish – enough to brag online about their latest crime or post photos of themselves engaged in criminal activity.

Parnaby was surprised by the lack of dialogue between the Toronto Police and the public. Most of the police tweets were filtered and one-directional. Compared to other police departments that he has studied, he found the Toronto force to be “very tight-lipped,” and their tweets rarely engaged with the public. “They send messages out, but they’re very careful about dialoguing with others.”

As more police departments turn to Twitter as a communications and public relations vehicle, Parnaby says they need to be aware of the impression they make with their online presence. “I think they do have to engage at least a little bit more,” he says of the Toronto Police. “It’s a risky endeavour, but I think their silence and the one-directional nature of their tweets have reputational effects that might not be great.”

The Toronto Police has more than 80,000 Twitter followers. Among members of the public who comment regularly on the Toronto Police, some have up to 30,000 followers. “It’s a high-stakes game for reputation,” says Parnaby.

Organizations that put themselves on Twitter are inviting public feedback, both positive and negative, and they can’t control the kind of feedback they receive. He says Twitter has become a forum in which people discuss examples of good and bad policing as well as what constitutes good citizenship. “It’s a moral and ethical discussion,” he says, and it’s an important part of an open civil society.